Nélida Nassar 02.21.2016
There was plenty to like about the opening evening of Al Bustan’s 23rd Festival, dedicated to the quadricentennial of Shakespeare’s death. The organizers were on top of just about everything for their opening event, which was the buzz of the winter season. As a lead-in to the bard’s anniversary Maestro Gianluca Marciano with the Al Bustan Orchestra tackled Smetena’s Richard III and Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The two pieces play off each other with their lyricism, atmospheric musical impressions and emotion rather than in terms of their complex plots.
Based on a literary subject, Richard III is one of the least well known of Smetena’s six symphonic tone poems. Musically, it is modeled on Lizst, but with a Bohemian accent, and Smetena approached it more as a dramatist than as a poet or a philosopher. The Al Bustan orchestra – dressed for the occasion in a kaleidoscopic array of bright colors, creating a forest of enchantments far away from the customary black – swept the listener along the work’s rising romantic waves, settled down in an interval of calm, and then exploded again into sound in the final section. While the orchestra projected the work’s panache, it failed to fully convey the scintillating, compelling atmosphere, deeply considered and richly colored, that can be found in the piece’s merger of music and drama.
The next piece on the program was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for which Mendelssohn wrote the Overture at 17. Along with his sister Fanny, he first performed it in a version for two pianos, and then orchestrated it for a public concert the following year. He returned to it 16 years later using it as the foundation for the complete incidental music he composed to accompany a performance of the play. As music lovers have long known, Mendelssohn’s overture perfectly captured the magic and frivolity of the ethereal world created by Shakespeare.
Maestro Marciano conducting the Al Bustan Orchestra began this evening’s semi-staged performance with four magical, suspenseful chords. The latter well captured the essence of the play with its unexpected twists and turns in love and life. (“The course of true love never did run smooth.”). He condensed both the play and the music removing the “mechanics” (Nick Bottom, Peter Quince, Francis Flute, Robin Starveling, Tom Snout, and Snug) as well as the lovers (Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius) and their associated music, leaving only several fairies as part of the plot.
Despite these omissions – and the dryness of the concert hall that prevented the sound from reverberating – we savored the best moments from this adaptation of Shakespeare’s woodland comedy and Mendelssohn’s atmospheric score. The loud winds evoked the threatening darkness of the forest and the strings had an ethereal quality, as well as offering their own hee-haws. Marciano was well partnered with the fairies’ roles: British soprano Fiona Hymns, who has a agile, light, sparkling timber with lyrical quality, and Australian mezzo-soprano, Sophie Goldbrick, with her voluptuous and deeper, beautiful tone, exuding immense likability and down-to-earth charm. They narrated and sang splendidly with the support of the Sola Voce Women’s Chorus of Antonine University bringing Shakespeare’s words to life and strengthening the play’s narrative links. In addition to the famous Overture, this performance retained the meltingly beautiful Nocturne and the brilliant Wedding March. Not all was magic – due to the alterations; the play’s trajectory was unclear and the music was short on sensuality, it could have had more of a glittery edge to it – but it all added up to a light-hearted, colorful musical evening.